Last Sunday I was able to publish my first foray into fantasy, The Stone Seekers, a sample of which can be read by clicking the corresponding tab above. I mentioned it in Issue #7 of The Times, but placed it at the bottom of some other promotional material, and think that some folks may have burned out on what was essentially a bunch of ads before they got down to it, so I’m mentioning it again… First, this time. It is classic sword-and-sorcery, you can read three chapters in the sample, and if it strokes your zither, as it were, links and ordering info are at the top of the sample.
And with that bit of business taken care of, we’ll now move on to the real post.
“I suppose I am a born novelist, for the things I imagine are more vital and vivid to me than the things I remember.”
~ ELLEN GLASGOW.
In this article, I am going to look at plots and subplots, and the folks who drive them. I’ve been toying with this idea, and have come to liken the relationships between them to the relationships between bodies in a solar system.
Many beginning writers formulate the idea for a plot; this little manlike creature is going to carry a magic ring on a long, dangerous quest, and drop it into a volcano. Along the way, a big mean guy with a lot of power is going to try to stop him. That’s a good start, but a lot of beginners get this down in their notebooks, and say, “Okay, there’s my story. Time to get writing!”
But not so fast; something is missing!
Think about your own life. You, of course, are the hero. You have a quest to complete. You have to replace a broken-down car, put sealer on your deck, get your taxes done, some major task that has a loudly ticking clock associated with it. You are perfectly capable of sealing a deck, shopping for a car, or whatever the quest is, and if you could just concentrate on it, it would be the work of a day. But you can’t do that, can you? Your boss needs you to work overtime, your brother-in-law wants you to help him move, you have to put new weather stripping around your windows before Friday’s storm comes in.
These are subplots, and they are the lifeblood of high-quality fiction. Imagine your leading man is an attorney, a government prosecutor who has just stepped up to being the lead attorney in his office’s prosecutions. Imagine one of the first cases in which he is leading is that of a high-profile drug dealer who has committed several murders in the course of his business dealings. If this prosecution is botched, this animal goes free to continue his ravages on society. That is your plot, and it makes for powerful dramatic tension. Now imagine that this prosecutor has a vindictive ex-wife who has just informed him that she is about to marry an Australian and move to his home in Sydney, taking his five-year old daughter with her, likely never to be seen again. That is the subplot, and it ramps the tension up to a whole new level. The comparison I like to make is that the hero can’t give his full attention to the wolf at the door, because he has a rat gnawing at his ankle. This is why subplots are sometimes called “distractions.”
So, where does this Solar System analogy come in? As you can see from the diagram, a solar system consists of a number of planets orbiting a star. The star is the plot, and everything in the story ultimately revolves around it. Planets may be up close and fast moving, or at a distance so removed that they are barely influenced, but all revolve around the star. These planets represent characters who impact the story, and the closer they are to the star, the more important their influence. The Protagonist is generally the closest one in, followed by the Antagonist. These two have the most vested interests in the plot, and affect, and are affected by it more than anyone else. Further out revolve the Confidant, the (main) Henchman, a minor character, if you’re using one, that supports the protagonist, and a minor character that supports the Antagonist. I never use more than six viewpoint characters, and rarely more than five. If I need more than six, that means I am writing a series.
All right, we have the planets established in their orbits, what do we add next? The moons that represent subplots. The protagonist, the closest planet to the star, has one large moon, much like Earth. There can be two, but at the risk of overly complicating the story. Anyway, this large subplot keeps crossing in front of the planet, eclipsing its view of the main plot. That’s what subplots are to the Protagonist, distractions, pure and simple, important developments demanding attention that must be taken from the main quest. Referring back to the Lord of the Rings allusion that I started the article with, remember when Faramir’s men captured Frodo and Sam, and almost hauled them back to Minas Tirith? Subplot. It wasn’t necessary to the overall story, but it fed the plot by ramping up the tension, and delaying the destruction of the Ring, which gave Sauron more time to search for it.
By contrast, the second planet, the Antagonist, can look more like Jupiter, with a dozen smaller moons. The Antagonist’s subplots will generally serve to help him, being minions that are performing various actions to interfere with the Protagonist. Again from Lord of the Rings, one word: Saruman. Of course, not all subplots serve to further the Antagonist’s schemes; you need look no further than Captain Hook’s crocodile for an example of a major hindrance.
The third planet, the Confidant, is a character who stands to gain little of a personal nature if the Protagonist wins, but he or she works on behalf of the Protagonist anyway. Depending on the story you are telling, the Confidant may gain a great deal from the Protagonist’s victory, such as the survival of civilization, but the rule of thumb is that this character is completely altruistic. To have them motivated by money or the promise of power makes them unsympathetic, and seriously harms your story. They may start out that way, but should come to believe in the Protagonist’s cause before the end. The Confidant has one serious limitation: He or she cannot solve the Protagonist’s problem for him. The Protagonist has to defeat the Big Bad all on his own. If the Confidant is going to win the Final Battle, then the Confidant is actually the Protagonist, and should be written as such. He can come to the Protagonist’s rescue once, but if it becomes an ongoing event, people are going to start wondering why they aren’t reading a book about this guy. Finally, while the Confidant exists to support the Protagonist, you can’t have her come skipping down the garden path with a ready-made solution every time the Protagonist runs into a problem. Again, that raises questions about who the hero of this book is, anyway.
The fourth planet, the Henchman, looks at first glance like the Antagonist’s Confidant, and while it is true that the two may be friends, the Henchman following the Antagonist blindly, the resemblance is superficial. The Henchman can do all the dirty work for the Antagonist, who never has to get blood on his own hands. He can be a respectable businessman, a bank president or senior attorney, who sends out his Henchman to “reason” with those opposed to him. The Henchman, in turn, may send Minions to do the actual dirty work (these are the fourth planet’s moons); the Confidant, as a rule, has no such equivalent helpers.
I don’t have a name for the character represented by the fifth planet. He helps the good guys in a minor sort of way. An example should suffice. Imagine a fantasy quest story in which the Hero and all his entourage, having assembled all the available data, set out to confront the Big Bad. After they are well on their way, the scholars uncover additional information showing that the plan they are following will lead to certain disaster, so they find an apprentice warrior, someone who wanted to go but was turned down, give him the information, and send him out to find the heroes and redirect them. That is the fifth character.
If the heroes have, unsuspected in their midst, a spy who is somehow sending or leaving reports for a Minion to pass on to the Big Bad, that would be the sixth character (and planet). But a few planets and moons do not make a complete solar system. There are other forces at play.
These are comets and asteroids, and as bodies in eccentric orbits that can land anywhere with devastating results, they represent random events, and minor characters respectively. You never know how these things are going to play out, and just as an asteroid put paid to the dinosaurs in our own Solar System, a group of nomads might capture a vital character, or a talkative bartender might casually toss out a piece of information that changes everything.
So that’s my grand theory, that solar systems have a lot in common with the tightly-woven threads of a good, convoluted plot, and that you can learn a lot about one by studying the other. What do you think?
Steve Moore, a British Ameriphile and speculative fiction author, is putting the finishing touches on his new novel, which he describes as a “steampunk lite erotic vampire horror” story. He is currently looking for beta readers, so anyone interested in trading your honest opinion for an advance reader copy from the cutting edge should contact him at the link above to arrange the details. Incidentally, the eye-catching cover was created by Bryce Raffle, whose web page is linked in the sidebar under Illustrators.
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Karen J. Carlisle, author of such series as Viola Stewart, Doctor Jack, and Aunt Enid, is also an artist in her own right, and is offering a series of mugs with tie-in art to her books. Whether you’re a fan of Viola, as I am, or a collector of rare mugs, you should definitely take a look at these. Her current post is promoting in-person purchases at a local convention she is attending, but you can arrange on-line purchases using the Contact form at her website above.
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Today and all weekend, William J. Jackson has set the price of his dieselpunk opus, Down Jersey Driveshaft at 99¢ US for readers in the UK, so don’t miss this sprawling story of war, personal suffering, and triumph!
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And that’s today’s offering. Be with me next Tuesday for another issue of Blimprider Times, when I’ll once again be rounding up the week’s news, and taking an in-depth look at one of my sister websites. See you then!